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Wal-Mart and consumer ethics [12 Jan 2005|10:44pm]

This is a lengthy quote, but contains a number of good points. The conflicting identities of consumer and worker I think are also related to the elitist charges that are always leveled at anyone who suggests that people shouldn't shop at Wal-Mart. Because as consumers, we're divided from each other by what we can currently afford to consume, or risk affording to consume, and those differences are readily apparent because we wear our consumer trappings proudly. The consumer identity runs interference. Though we may share common interests as workers, and though many worker issues like discrimination, working conditions and health care costs cross income boundaries, we lose sight of them because we are drawn first to the flashy things that differentiate us.

It is crucial that Wal-Mart's liberal and progressive critics make use of the growing public indignation at the company over sex discrimination, low pay and other workers' rights issues, but it is equally crucial to do this in ways that remind people that their power does not stop at their shopping dollars. It's admirable to drive across town and pay more for toilet paper to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart, but such a gesture is, unfortunately, not enough. As long as people identify themselves as consumers and nothing more, Wal-Mart wins.

The invention of the "consumer" identity has been an important part of a long process of eroding workers' power, and it's one reason working people now have so little power against business. According to the social historian Stuart Ewen, in the early years of mass production, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, modernizing capitalism sought to turn people who thought of themselves primarily as "workers" into "consumers." Business elites wanted people to dream not of satisfying work and egalitarian societies---as many did at that time---but of the beautiful things they could buy with their paychecks.

Business was quite successful in this project, which influenced much early advertising and continued throughout the twentieth century. In addition to replacing the "worker," the "consumer" has also effectively replaced the citizen. That's why, when most Americans hear about the Wal-Mart's worker-rights abuses, their first reaction is to feel guilty about shopping at the store. A tiny minority will respond by shopping elsewhere---and only a handful will take any further action. A worker might write to her congressman or local newspaper, or galvanize her church and knitting circle to visit local management. A consumer makes an isolated, politically slight decision: to shop or not to shop. Most of the time, Wal-Mart has her exactly where it wants her, because the intelligent choice for anyone thinking as a consumer is not to make a political statement but to seek the best bargain and the greatest convenience.

--- Liza Featherstone, "Down and Out in Discount America," The Nation, January 3, 2005.

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